Earlier this summer, I had the chance to visit the town in western New York where I grew up. My family moved away when I was a teenager, but it has loomed large in my consciousness through the many years since. It had been nearly 20 years since I last visited.
My husband and I drove all over town while I told him stories about waiting at the bus stop on snowy mornings and biking to get frozen custard in the hot, muggy summers. We saw the house my parents built, the cul-de-sac where I learned to ride a bike and the school where I attended kindergarten. We even visited the synagogue where I went to nursery school, became bat mitzvah and was confirmed. The memories came flooding back.
But as we checked into our hotel, it was clear: You can return to the places you’ve lived, but that doesn’t mean it will still be your home.
There is a classic Carlebach melody that many congregations sing this time of year, throughout the reflective month of Elul and continuing through the High Holy Day season:
Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.
Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are born and reborn again.
The haunting melody urges us to consider our own lives, and as we consider the “land of our soul,” it also brings to mind the Israelites’ calling toward the land they had not yet known, the land they were promised would be home. As they make their way toward the land of Israel they are eager to lay their eyes on this place, this land that their souls have always known as it had been in the stories of prior generations.
This week’s parashah is a tremendous list of laws and rules given to the Israelites on their epic journey homeward. Many, while still followed in some circles, like the prohibition against mixing linen and wool, feel largely irrelevant to many Jews today. Others, like the instruction to kill a man and woman that have been adulterous, have been eliminated from contemporary practice altogether.
The rules of Ki Teitzei represent a society’s early attempt to define how to live together in a way that honors the sanctity of relationship and community. While some of the laws are shocking to our sensibilities — such as the strict guidelines on what to do with a criminal who has been put to death by being impaled on a stake — Ki Teitzei shows movement toward becoming a society that is seeking a greater good. It is an early draft, to be sure, but these laws that seem depraved today were, I assume, highly progressive in their time.
When we read the Torah, we seek the land of our soul. We seek return. The phrases feel familiar, the rules inform our lives today. And yet, the worldview of chapters like Ki Teitzei don’t represent our current home.
We can see now how far Jewish life has come — how the rules we live by today are rooted in ancient text but represent a great leap forward from Torah’s basic guidelines. We have changed much since we dwelled in the desert.
This time of year urges us to reflect. It urges us to return. To go back, to try again. As we gaze into Elul’s mirror, we see that teshuvah, this timely return, is more than a sentimental nod to the past. This return is both a look back, and a step forward.
In reading Torah year after year, we seek to learn from the lessons of the past, not return to them.
In visiting my hometown, I remembered where I came from, and found joy in reminiscing. But the person I’ve become in the years since then has no permanent place there. Those experiences are a part of me, but it’s no longer the “land of my soul.”
In doing the work of teshuvah, the work of return, we should indeed reflect on who we are, what we are and where we’ve been. But the real work begins when, carrying our wistful returns, we leap forward into the year ahead.
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.